Strategic Paradigm

What’s a Strategic Paradigm and Why should I care?

I did my graduate research (2006 – 2014) on a compelling but poorly defined little concept called Strategic Culture. I was fascinated by the potential in the concept and set out to redefine it according to the principles of a sound definition (as opposed to description). A few years later I had something of an epiphany and replaced the word culture with paradigm. My final, formal definition, best employed in the context of political theory and security studies, is as follows.

Strategic Paradigm is the shared, social, economic, and political values and priorities of a people, relevant to security preferences, as historically shaped and embedded by repeated interaction with and adaptation to their prevailing strategic and bio-physical environment.”

“But I’m neither a political theorist nor a member of the military” you point out, “so why should I care?”

There is relevance and utility in this concept outside the ivory towers of academia or the pretentious corridors of government and military, and you may very well have inadvertently been applying aspects of it in your professional and social interaction throughout your life. How often have you heard, or even used the expression “Just walk a mile in his moccasins” or followed the “walk a mile in her shoes” campaign?  The originator of the moccasin quote was American poet Mary T. Lathrap in her poem “Judge Softly” (see below) and the objective was to provide a more understanding perspective rather than a judgemental one, when considering folks who maybe weren’t behaving quite as you thought they should. Beyond the theological references in the poem it’s a lovely concept that has found voice in a variety of cultures throughout human history.

But let’s get back to the definition and break it down a little. What do we mean by Strategic?

Strategic: “Relating to the identification of long-term or overall aims and interests and the means of achieving them.”

“Having a strategy suggests an ability to look up from the short term and the trivial to view the long term and the essential, to address causes rather than symptoms, to see woods rather than trees.” (Strategy: A History, Sir Lawrence Freedman 2013)

Strategic, an adjective that derives from the noun “strategy”, is a particular long-term plan for success, especially in politics, business, or conflict, suggesting a pre-positioning or preparing for advantage.[1] In everyday scenarios, as an individual or as a member of a larger group, if you’re thinking strategically, you’ll make plans and choices related to where you live, such as what you’ll do for a living, how you dress (weather and occupation), your preferred transportation, your preferences in a partner, and even whether to have children, in order to optimize your quality of life, or the success of your organization in the near and maybe even long term. If you’re thinking tactically, however, you’ll be more inclined to make choices in response to opportunities and challenges of the moment. Kind of like the old story of the Ant and the Grasshopper.

But why ditch the word culture? Because it doesn’t work. It’s too vague. Culture refers to the “total of the inherited ideas, beliefs, values and knowledge, which constitute the shared basis of social action.”[2] It’s a difficult term to use as it’s so broad and inclined to multiple applications. And what creates a unique culture? In order to use it you would have to specify the aspects of culture that were relevant to your analysis. Cumbersome and even divisive. If the inherited ideas are tied to identifiers like ethnicity, religion, language and historical customs and traditions, you’re working from the basis of an “us vs them” mind set. Hardly conducive to non-judgemental, objecive analysis and understanding and more likley to undermine security than enhance it.   

Replacing culture with Paradigm provides a much stronger basis for objective analysis and undertanding.

“A paradigm is a constellation of concepts, values, perceptions and practices shared by a community, which forms a particular vision of reality.” (The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems, Fritjof Capra 1997)

                        “[A paradigm] is like a superstructure of ideas, a scaffolding upon which we hang our understanding, our ‘knowledge’ of reality”. (Radical Nature: Rediscovering the Soul of Matter, Christian de Quincey 2002)

In short, Paradigm can be summed up as your world view; as an individual, an organization or a nation; whether it’s your local, regional, national or global world view – as shaped by your relationship with your environment. Your environment in this context, has two components: the Biophysical and the Strategic. The biophysical environment is the predominating physical resources that are the basis for industry, community, education and leadership. The strategic environment is made up of the prevailing strategic challenges and opportunities relating to defensibility, transportation and communication for every social construct. History, furthermore, shows that societies are not static but are evolving social constructs with a dynamic world view subject to change in response to the evolving relationship they have with their unique environment. Changes in the strategic and biophysical environment can either accumulate gradually over time or result abruptly from natural or man-made catastrophe. In either case the changes can undermine the established world view of a society to the point where it fails and triggers a paradigm shift like regime change or dramatic change in leadership preferences. In instances where the environment changes so drastically as to be hostile to survival the shift might be the migration of an entire population.

Strategic Paradigm thus refers to an individuals’, or a peoples’ shared, basis for collaboratively pre-positioning or organizing themselves to achieve what the majority, or dominant demographic, have agreed are their shared sustainable objectives.

Which gets us back to “so what?”

Your Strategic Paradigm or world view, whether as an individual, organization or nation, is a fundamental part of your identity.

Identity is concerned largely with the question: “Who are you?”  What does it mean to be who you are?  Identity relates to our basic values that dictate the choices we make (e.g., relationships, career). These choices reflect who we are and what we value. For example, we can assume that investment banker values money, while the college professor values education and helping students. However, few people choose their identities. Instead, they simply internalize the values of their parents or the dominant cultures (e.g., pursuit of materialism, power, and appearance).”[3]

The environment shapes what you do for a living and how you do it. We self-identify culturally by name, by gender, by marital status, by ethnicity or language, by economic or social status and so on. As we mature, individually or collectively, however, much of our identity can become based on our productivity, on what we do and how well we do it. There’s nothing wrong with basing identity on aspects of culture, but that can leave us open, as mentioned earlier, to a “them vs us” bias in our world view and in our subsequent analysis and misunderstanding of others.

One of the many challenges facing humanity in the twenty-first century is the growing diversity created by an increasingly mobile global population and mass diasporas generated by environmental disaster or drastic regime change. For far too many this diversity is perceived as a serious threat to an individuals culturally established sense of identity, their sense of continued belonging that is the basis for security. We are quick to judge what the “other” is doing rather than take the time to understand why they are doing it. What if we could move past this fear of “the other” and find a way to understand the why rather than the what of choices? What if we could understand, first our own Strategic Paradigm, and then the Strategic Paradigm of the “other” rather than judge what we see the”other” doing or saying on the basis of our own projected fears and culturally driven values? What if we could strive to understand and communicate rather than judge and condemn? And that’s why the concept of Strategic Paradigm is not only relevant, it’s downright important!

“Judge Softly”

“Pray, don’t find fault with the man that limps,
Or stumbles along the road.
Unless you have worn the moccasins he wears,
Or stumbled beneath the same load.

There may be tears in his soles that hurt
Though hidden away from view.
The burden he bears placed on your back
May cause you to stumble and fall, too.

Don’t sneer at the man who is down today
Unless you have felt the same blow
That caused his fall or felt the shame
That only the fallen know.

You may be strong, but still the blows
That were his, unknown to you in the same way,
May cause you to stagger and fall, too.

Don’t be too harsh with the man that sins.
Or pelt him with words, or stone, or disdain.
Unless you are sure you have no sins of your own,
And it’s only wisdom and love that your heart contains.

For you know if the tempter’s voice
Should whisper as soft to you,
As it did to him when he went astray,
It might cause you to falter, too.

Just walk a mile in his moccasins
Before you abuse, criticize and accuse.
If just for one hour, you could find a way
To see through his eyes, instead of your own muse.

I believe you’d be surprised to see
That you’ve been blind and narrow-minded, even unkind.
There are people on reservations and in the ghettos
Who have so little hope, and too much worry on their minds.

Brother, there but for the grace of God go you and I.
Just for a moment, slip into his mind and traditions
And see the world through his spirit and eyes
Before you cast a stone or falsely judge his conditions.

Remember to walk a mile in his moccasins
And remember the lessons of humanity taught to you by your elders.
We will be known forever by the tracks we leave
In other people’s lives, our kindnesses and generosity.

Take the time to walk a mile in his moccasins.”

~ by Mary T. Lathrap, 1895

[1] (1983.). Gage Canadian dictionary. V. E. Neufeld. Canada, Gage Publishing Ltd. .

[2] (2005.). Collins english dictionary. Glasgow, UK., Harper Collins. .